Elizabeth Kontomanou: Embrace (1999)
Her voice having been given major feature in the ensembles of Sam Newsome, James Hurt, and Mike Stern, it has become clear already that Kontamanou excels in the realm of wordless vocals in a manner perhaps not heard since the beautiful contributions of Flora Purim. To hear what Newsome, Hurt and others have heard in her- it dawns on one through investigating her various appearances on record that Kontamanou not only has a rich, layered voice with some striking, ethereal overtones, but that she is moreover a bona fide craftswoman as an improviser. Her lines flow lyrically and liltingly, but with a keen awareness of how to navigate highs and lows in dynamics, in intensity, and in emotional substance with the maximum amount of discrete quality. In other words, like the most expressive musicians do, she lets the music speak through her and works only to enhance it, to bring out the shades and nuance as only a sensitive mind could do.
This is Kontomanou’s debut album, released in 1999 but to most quarters, something which was almost entirely missed on the radar screen. Low distribution on the Steeplechase accounts partially, but it is equally relevant that the kind of vocal expression Elizabeth is engaged in does not fit the popular vogue of cutesy cabaret e.g. Diana Krall or Jane Monheit, nor does she pretend to feign the critically popular post-modern eclecticism of a Cassandra Wilson or Patricia Barber. No, Kontomanou, as compelled by Coltrane and ethnic musics, inhabits more of a (stereotypically) retro-60s space that features chants and searching rubato in substance and emphasizes universal, inspirational values like “love and peace” or the beauty of nature in its content.
The program here shows both elements of musical substance and extramusical content in equal measure. The opening “Aliki” for example, features an urgent, if not even desperate refrain that Kontomanou and horns recite together over a Trane-like bass vamp and Pilc’s typically large, dissonant voicings. The thread that leads us along here, as often on this record, is Kontamanou’s suspense-laden and emotionally immediate wordless vocals. “Aliki” is evocative moreover-it’s a Greek word that describes the salt residue left on a desert surface after rain. With this dark, haunting piece, evidently the clouds have yet to move on from the rain.
Whereas “Aliki” is a dark piece, the title track is upbeat, optimistic and has a charming refrain played tenderly by J.D. Allen and Sam Newsome on horns. Allen, with his intense Trane bag in tow, sets the table here for Elizabeth to stream off a vocal solo that is rhythmically intense and uses expanding intervals to intriguing effect.
“Spring” sounds like a declaration to be sure- a very epic sounding theme that lingers in the memory strongly because it is at once striking and somehow familiar. It actually reminds in its simplicity of a children’s song, and this it should not be faulted for as the simple emotional quality inherent to the piece- a grandiose uplifting, is something even the non-utopians among us should find beauty in.
Another testimonial to the awe of nature, “Clear Blue Skies” shows Kontamanou in what may be her most purely artistic light. The simple melodic basis of the piece, short phrases not unlike those Coltrane based his expansive improvisations on late in his career, gives way to an emotionally complex solo that- like the name of the song might imply, floats high above the clouds. Elizabeth resides near or at the top of her range for much of this solo, and the rewards of this excursion- a deeply touching, almost otherworldly vibrato at higher pitches being foremost among them, are worth hearing this record alone. Indeed, whereas all of the cuts on here are fine, it is on “Clear Blue Skies” that Kontamanou truly outdoes herself and shows herself to be a vocal and artistic element of certain note. An ethereal quality is undoubtedly the hallmark of her work.
As mentioned however, this record and the artist herself have received scant critical attention- indeed, the barest mention despite the continual moan for someone to do something different with vocals. Perhaps it is because the aesthetic persuasion that motivates her- the epic romanticism that impelled the most powerful, immediate Jazz on the 60s, from Coltrane onto Pharaoh Sanders on Impulse and Tyner’s late Blue Note sides, is currently seen as outmoded. Or like all romanticism in a post-modern reality, simply "quaint." Perhaps it may also be though, that we simply have a hard time reconciling the fact a vocalist does not wish to deal with popular song forms and instead wants to wrestle with an idiom that has been largely defined by instrumental giants such as those mentioned above, and do so on largely instrumental terms. Elizabeth Kontomanou, like Flora Purim, is most committed to using her voice as an acoustic instrument in the ideal sense through the great raw potential which lays in wordless vocals. Here she surrounds herself with master soloists like Sam Newsome and J.D. Allen so as not to make her abilities as an improviser go untested. Indeed, it should be mentioned that time and time again both men, as well as pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, lay out impressive statements that raise the bar for her own expression.
Finally, whatever the reason may be for her lack of press, it is certainly true that too few (vocalists themselves included) have asked the question “What would a singer coming heavy out of Coltrane sound like?” This is something that is not easy to conceive of in the abstract, but Elizabeth Kontomanou, whatever her flaws or imperfections may be, is one who obviously feels emboldened to answer. It's apparent if nothing else that the model of John Coltrane is at the heart of her expression, and in this should lie much interest for both Trane fans and those who cry for something different in the vocal world.
AVAILABLE FROM STEEPLECHASE PRODUCTIONS, DIRECT: www.steeplechase.dk
"EMBRACE" IS CATALOGUE NO. 31467
Track Listing: Aliki (7:36), Embrace (6:22), Where I Wanna Be (3:16), Spring (5:56), The Light of You (9:02), All Music Kinds (11:31), Lost Letter to a Nomad (10:12), Clear Blue Skies (10:10), The Story Teller (5:37) TOTAL PLAYING TIME: 70:19)
Personnel: Elizabeth Kontomanou- Voice. Sam Newsome- Soprano saxophone. J.D. Allen- Tenor saxophone. Jean-Michel Pilc- Piano. Thomas Bramerie- Bass. Abdou Mboup- Percussion.
Record Label: SteepleChase Records